Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Church And The Homeless: Questions For Our Time

Fr. Dale Matson
“And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’” (Luke 9:58).

I was once impressed by a local church that had a sign reading, “The mission field begins at the edge of our property.” The reality for our church is that the mission field begins on our church campus. Part of our church outreach is to the homeless in our community. We offer dinners twice weekly, operate a thrift shop, limited financial assistance and minister to the homeless. Our deacons direct this ministry on campus and there is additional involvement by our parishioners in the Poverello House a privately funded ecumenical facility in another part of Fresno.

Perhaps the thing that rends my heart the most is the erosion of human dignity and personal freedom that results from a life lived on the streets. They are more likely to be the victims of crimes, less likely to receive adequate medical services and like fast food wrappers thrown from a car window; they too are blown into the gutters.

Most research on the homeless includes lack of affordable housing as a major contributing factor. The problem with this phrase is that it can be misleading. For most homeless individuals who generally have no employment, they would at a minimum need rent subsidies and at a maximum need free housing.
Even though they are a part of our church, they generally self-select for the “outer court”. They are a family unto themselves with only a few participating in our main services. During Morning Prayer I can look out the window and see individuals sleeping in our shrubbery. During Evening Prayer, I have seen men gather outside the chapel on a circular bench and pass a bottle around but they do not attend the service. They are not passing through our campus. It has become their home. Some receive mail there and make calls from our receptionist’s phone. Do we add a Portable Potty and hire a security guard for overnight? What is the range and scope of our assistance?

I believe they feel secure on our campus but as their numbers increase the staff and volunteers feel less secure. How do we incorporate them into the life of the church? How we help them is as important as the fact that we offer help. How do we say like Jesus, “Get up and walk”? How do we teach them to fish not just hand them fish? How do we reach them spiritually so that they may be transformed by the love of Christ?

Like the Good Samaritan, how can we dress their wounds, accompany them to a destination, pay for their lodging and care but leave them at some point? Like a good parent, how do we help them to become independent and capable of self-governance and self-support? How do we equip them as any other of the Saints? I believe it has become an ever expanding issue for us. Is this an issue for your church also?

How we respond is a measure of our understanding of the grace given us. Amen  


Inspector Clouseau said...

Kudos to you. Every human being has value and should be respected.

Nice work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the blue Nav Bar located at the top of my site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Fr Matson -

Have you ever formed personal relationships with any of the people you can see through your windows during your liturgies?

I have found that it goes a long way to restoring people's dignity when they are treated like individuals with names and stories, rather than as representatives of "the homeless". Of course, not everyone who comes onto the church's property will want to be in relationship with you & your parishioners, but you will experience the joy of sharing in the lives of those who do.


Dale Matson said...

Dear Anonymous,
That is a fair question and yes I have and I will tell the story in the next post.

Anonymous said...

Thinking over this situation the question that arises is how do we help these people living on the campus to become independent. I think we all have concerns about people sleeping on the campus, is this a way of enabling them to remain homeless? It is fitting to provide meals to these folks. To allow them to sleep on the church property without limits or supervision seems to be irresponsible. If we are going to provide them assistance then an actual shelter would be the compassionate as well as legal way to house them. Part of the solution needs to include motivating the homeless to elevate themselves and be accountable.

Dale Matson said...

Dear Anonymous,
"Part of the solution needs to include motivating the homeless to elevate themselves and be accountable." I agree with this. We were discussing this at our Wednesday clergy meeting. Perhaps a "care plan" for each person could be developed with each individual, something like an individual educational plan (IEP) that would have measurable and realistic goals. If a social worker is a parishioner, that individual would be a great asset to a team linking them with community agencies. The Priests could develop the spiritual goals. I would like feedback on this idea.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how realistic this is. There are some people in this category who would gain from IEP but I believe that many will not be able to break out of this lifestyle that has captured them. Many are mentally ill and would not be able to commit or want to commit. The diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction have taken over and destroyed their lives. Yes, Jesus can heal if healing is desired.
Therefore I think we need to go back to the above statement, "If we are going to provide them assistance then an actual shelter would be the compassionate as well as legal way to house them". We must make a hard decision whether the cathedral is going to continue to let the growing number of homeless people sleep on the grounds unsupervised or are we going to provide shelter or are we going to feed the homeless but require them to sleep at designated shelters for the homeless.

Dale Matson said...

Thanks for the comment. I believe this is an important discussion for our church and the church in general. A friend at church years ago saw me smoking outside the church in the parking lot. He said, "You know, Jesus loves you right where you are at, but loves you enough to ask you not to remain where you are at." I had to pray for two years just for the will to quit smoking but I did finally quit on January 10th 1983, You could call it conversion from addiction. I think there could be a range of responses to the needs of the people based partly on our assessment (which includes prayerful input from God)of their capacity to profit from what we offer them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, that we can have profound impact in each other's lives in meaningful ways. I have been delivered from many issues in my life and much of it came from people that God put in my life. Each of us are unique and our journeys are unique. I think it is time as a church to put this ministry on the table and look at it carefully and seek the Lord and His direction to help us as a church to define the mission.

Sibyl said...

Fr. Matson,

If you, your church and the other ACNA churches in CA are interested in developing a program of recovery for homeless, there are numerous resources, some in California. Dr. Dale Ryan been in 12 Step Christian recovery and is now involved in Fuller University's recovery training program for pastors.
Dr. Ryan and his wife have written some wonderful recovery Bible studies that are available at the National Association for Christian Recovery (NACR) website.

Saddleback Church founded the Celebrate Recovery ministry that also helps with issues that keep people homeless and bound to dysfunction.

Also, Pacific Garden Mission has been in homeless ministry for a long, long time. They don't seem to enable sin and may have a good success rate. They may have training resources.

For the homeless to contribute, participate and serve the program that helps them - to give back and feel valuable is important.

A group of people with a burden, feeling called by God, praying together, seeking and receiving a God-given vision for a ministry to homeless, dedicated to making it an effective life-changing program is probably the first step.

Dale Matson said...

Thanks for the resources.

Sibyl said...

Fr. Matson,

In addition to a recovery and 12 step focused ministries, other forms of ministry would be needed:
- Teaching and Christian Life principles - based on catechisms and the Didache, emphazing basic Christian values, life-principles, etc.
- Prayer ministry, utilizing all forms of prayer, intercession, healing prayer, deliverance (there are some amazing praise-centered deliverance prayers by Sts Basil and Gregory that could be adapted to this form of ministry), renunciations, confession (coming into agreement with God about sin), forgiveness/asking forgiveness/making amends, lectio divina prayer (praying the Scriptures as both ministry and prescriptives), contemplative techniques, etc. I have taken classes, attended seminars, internships, worked and received prayer in several prayer ministries.
Francis and Judith McNutt have a prayer ministry training at Christian Healing Ministries in Jacksonville Florida and also minister to priests. Judith McNutt travels and teaches with a team as well.
- Mentoring, spiritual direction, accountability groups to help them grow up into Christ.

Sibyl said...

The hardest and yet most necessary part (Jesus said it was the ONE THING NECESSARY Luke 10:42) of restoration for people with deep relational issues underlying addiction, hopelessness and estrangement may be learning to relate to and actually trust and love God, to actually be still, focus and WORSHIP - on a continual and daily basis. Worship allows God to enter and work, to upload the junk programs we are willing to surrender and to download His goodness and grace into us - just where we need it.

I've taken classes and seminars on worship, but it's still hard to DO it faithfully. That's why I suggested mentoring and spiritual direction and accountability groups. Even then, it can be hard for a person with childhood trauma that has ruined their understanding of the Character of God, to trust, bond, open up and accept input and counsel of others. Sins and modeling of others and our own misbeliefs create many inner obstructions. (I know this well)

I still have a long way to go.

Thanks so much for your writings. They have meant the world to me.

Dale Matson said...

Thanks for your wisdom and insights. Much of what Jesus and the church teach is simply behavioral. They were saying "Just do it" way before Nike. Each of us doing the work we were called to do is not optional. Our becoming whole depends on it.